Melody Maker – QM Union, Glasgow / Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, March 1997
22nd April 1997
Live Review

People have a curious, gooey feeling about Belle And Sebastian. They’ve fallen head over heels for the poetic ambition and tander romantic’s of the septet’s second album, “If You’re Feeling Sinister”, and now they want to see what the boy with the ever-wide eyes and slight-yet-affecting voice is actually like. The appearance of a good-looking, confident-seeming 28-year-old with a cool Stephen Pastel haircut is, therefore, a shock for those expecting a hopeIess cutie type. And even when he says, “I’m not too comfortable with having to stand for a long time,” you feel it isn’t out of wimpiness but a sense of fierce individuality. You’re soon proved right.
The boy’s name is Stuart Murdoch and, in the crudest terms possible, he’s the next Morrissey meets Jarvis meets Edwyn meets your favourite lovelorn hero. Those same curious people- in their hundreds in Scotland, soon to be joined by a nation of soppy dreamers-treat Stuart and his songs with an affection and warmth that’s nothing to do with fashion and everything to do with compassion. As he strums the first chords to any of his knowing masterpieces, it’s Sebadoh silent here,the stillness of respect and anticipation. And when a number ends, it’s tender uproar, the sound of tearful “Thankyou”s and excited “We love you”s.

It’s easy to see why these beautiful songs so readily capture the heart. They’re fashioned from a jumble sale of elegance – ragged cello and violin trade Tindersticks stories with the ghosts of The Go-Betweens and Felt on guitar and Hammond – and played with the serene-yet-heartfelt passion of a sensitive collective. There’s also a dark, perverse streak present which insists on blending idealism with the grubby realities of troubled existence. Thus, the characters in these songs don’t just fall in and out of love: they indulge in murder fantasies, homoerotic lovemaking sessions and moments of pure, untutored hedonism.

There are many, many examples of B&Ss life-changing brilliance, but we’ll start with “The State I Am In”. Building from a whisper to outright epiphany, it follows a dream in which Stuart’s brother comes out (“It took the heat off me for a while,” he sings, but don’t assume autobiography), a crippled friend is cured on the Sabbath, and the local minister “Took all of my sins / And wrote a pocket novel called ‘The State That I’m In’.” It’s the kind of song that’s awash with character but emotionally direct at the same time, tapping straight into the part of your soul that yearns to see the world in four dimensions of colour.

Stuart has at least 30 other songs to match this and, while they wander into different romantic corners, they share a desire to bring a vibrant sense of poetry to the dusty machinations of the heart. That’s also why the band have an interval when there’s no real need, why Stuart playing a grand piano at the ornate Assembly Rooms seems like the most natural and just thing on the planet, why the new single, “Dog On Wheels”, resembles a dark Spanish fiesta and why B&S’s deliciously slow version of “Reel Around The Fountain” feels like a long lost part of the artistic universe coming alive and slotting perfectly into place.

Thank you, Belle, Sebastian and God. The pleasure and the privilege was mine.

Ian Watson

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